In Björn Runge’s The Wife, a marriage is unraveled and splayed open to reveal an intimate portrait of sexism at work in the highest reaches of the literary world. Adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name, the film centers on celebrated author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), a disheveled academic with a short temper and wandering eye, and his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), a quiet nurturer who heeds Joe’s every need, all the while disregarding her own.
Over the past 40 years, Joan’s relationship with Joe has become more like an agreement between two dependent parties—a game of platitudes, favors, and persuasions. She is faithful and unwavering, while he conveys his gratitude with flattery, thanking her ad nauseam in speeches. To Joe, the gesture is like a debt he must pay. But to Joan, the acknowledgments have become emptied of meaning.
We know this not only because she tells Joe as much, but because she communicates it silently with her mannerisms and affect. Everything Joan feels is already there, stitched into her mien: Sorrow sits on her brow; anxiety frames her smile. While it’s an impressive feat of acting from Close, Joan’s reticence is downright upsetting to watch. Over the course of the film, she must decide whether or not to speak up as she is packaged and presented time and again—to her family, her friends, and the world—as nothing more than a wife.
The year is 1992, the place a home near the Connecticut coast. Before dawn one day, the phone in the Castleman home begins to ring. Joe answers it in a stupor, while Joan—at his behest—scurries to pick up the other line. She holds her face steady, parting her lips only slightly as the caller announces that Joe has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Along with their son David (Max Irons)—himself an aspiring writer who desperately seeks his father’s approval—the Castlemans set out for Stockholm to begin a week of Nobel festivities. Also on board the flight is Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a journalist hoping to write a tell-all biography of Joe. Once they arrive at the hotel, the Castlemans are greeted with a variety of luxurious frills and venerations. Joan stomachs the spectacle, nearly shuddering at the Nobel committee’s suggestion that she join the other wives on a shopping trip. While we’ve already watched her wince her way through the news of Joe’s prize, this is the first time she publicly objects to going along. At the same time, from the perspective of the camera, she continues to dwell in the background, stepping into the frame only when her husband beckons her. Even in her refusal, Joan is drowned out by the sound of his braggadocio, nudged out of the frame by the doting crowds that surround him.
But Joan accepted long ago that she does not belong in that frame. In a flashback to her days at Smith College in the 1950s, a young Joan—played by Close’s daughter, Annie Starke—is gutted when the accomplished female novelist Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern) tries to steer her away from a writing career. “Don’t ever think that you can get their attention,” Elaine warns Joan, referring to the men “who write the reviews, who run the publishing houses, who edit the magazines—the ones who decide who gets to be taken seriously.” In a corresponding present-day scene, the reporters ask Joan if she is also a writer. Joe steps in before she can answer: “My wife doesn”t write, thank God,” he snaps.
By this point, we’ve seen enough flashbacks to Joan’s college days—where it emerges that she was the star in a creative-writing class taught by the young Joe Castleman—to know that she was once a writer. It’s only much later, when we see Joan offer to help Joe rework his first manuscript, that we realize she is more than just a neglected talent: She is the literary voice of Joe Castleman. We later discover that Joan has been hermiting herself away in the family office for years, typing away, story after story. The characters, the plot lines, the themes and conflicts—all of them are her own. And although Joe will try to justify their unsavory agreement by calling the two of them a “team”—claiming he was her “editor”—it’s clear from what little we see of this writing “team” that Joan is more of a one-woman writing workhorse than one half of a brilliant literary duo. She’s sacrificed time with her children, with herself, to become one of the greatest living authors of her time—and nobody knows it.
Runge’s film is one of stark gender disparity, where women are overlooked as scholars, thinkers, and Nobel winners—even when, in Joan’s case, the prize rightfully belongs to her. This is a dramatized illustration of an issue that has long characterized the literary world, especially the Nobel Prize. Since 1901, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 110 times, to 114 laureates, but only 14 have been women. Across their various fields of endeavor, the Nobel Prizes remain among the most prestigious boys’ clubs in the world. That this year’s prize in literature will not be awarded because of a sexual-assault scandal further underlines how pernicious and widespread the misogyny of this rarefied world is.
For this reason, The Wife becomes a timely critique: By placing a woman who gave up her dream of achieving fame as a writer at the center of the story, the film exposes the absolute worst of the literary world. Women are educated merely so that they can one day teach their own children; male professors take advantage of their female students; and publishing houses and award ceremonies operate more like all-male barrooms than forums for new voices and perspectives.
It’s in the scenes that focus solely on Joan that the film is at its most powerful. On her own without Joe, she’s wry and magnetic—a woman of many layers and volumes. Yet, even if her anger has been simmering since the film’s start, Joan never opts to let loose with the rage that we expect. This tension can be maddening to watch, but through Close’s subtle performance, the film is able to make its most devastating points.
This is precisely what happens in an exchange between Joan and Nathaniel, in which the journalist attempts to get her to open up about her husband, her marriage, and herself. He compliments a story that she wrote in college (hinting that he knows who’s behind the Nobel Prize–winning work) and uses Joe’s affairs as fodder for feigned sympathy. Still, Joan does not wish to give herself away, even as, in a painfully juxtaposed scene, we’re forced to watch Joe seducing a young photographer. Here, The Wife offers its most piercing sequence: We are witness to an agonizing illustration not just of marital deceit, but also of the weight of the creative and academic sexism that Joan has suffered through, which comes crashing down in her reticence.
Even in her most audacious moment of revolt, Joan remains silent. Composed yet furious, she escapes from the award reception and sets off for the hotel, where Joe follows her in a burst of anger and confusion. For the first time in the film—not to mention decades of marriage—Joan finally tells Joe exactly how she feels. She seethes with the realization of her voicelessness. In that moment, she does not completely break her silence and reveal the marriage’s central secret, but she does gain a new voice. No longer under pressure to comply, she remembers what she used to be, what she used to desire for herself. It’s a proper finale for an age in which women are finally letting the world know that they’re fed up with being silenced, under-recognized, and unrewarded.